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Pentagon disarms US National Guard in Washington

The Pentagon has told US National Guardsmen deployed to the nation’s capital not to use firearms or ammunition, and has issued orders to send home active-duty troops that the Trump administration amassed outside the city in recent days, a sign of de-escalation in the federal response to protests in the city.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper made the decision to disarm the guard without consulting the White House, after President Donald Trump ordered a militarized show of force on the streets of Washington to quell demonstrations that were punctured by an episode of looting Sunday, two senior administration officials said. Trump had encouraged the National Guard to be armed.

Initially, a small group of guardsmen deployed in the city had been carrying guns while standing outside monuments, but the bulk of the forces, such as those working with federal park police at Lafayette Square in front of the White House, didn’t carry firearms out of caution.

Now, all of the roughly 5000 guardsmen deployed to Washington from the District of Columbia and 11 states have been told not to use weaponry or ammunition.

Starting mid-week, the Trump administration de-escalated further, he said, by removing firearms from the equation altogether.

“It was clear that there were enough federal law enforcement that had descended on the city, and that would be their principal responsibility,” McCarthy said.

The White House was not involved in the decision to disarm the Guard, the two senior officials said, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The order from the Pentagon comes as federal and district officials prepare for a crowd of an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 protesters in Washington tomorrow and as the Pentagon looks to dial back the militarization of the response.

Because the District is a special federal jurisdiction without the status of a state, the DC National Guard is controlled by the president, who delegated his authority over the forces to McCarthy.

The District’s mayor can request the deployment of the DC Guard but doesn’t have the power to deploy guardsmen herself or control them once deployed. Governors control the guard in other states.

A senior US defence official said Esper communicated the order to disarm to the DC Guard and other guardsmen earlier in the week through McCarthy and General Joseph Lengyel, the head of the National Guard.

The order affected only about 10 guardsmen who had been out on patrol with firearms that weren’t loaded but with ammunition in their packs, the senior defence official said.

DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser had requested that the federal government deploy the DC Guard, initially to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, but has since criticised the Trump administration’s response in the city, which critics have described as an overreaction designed to boost the president politically with Americans outside the nation’s capital watching on television.

Trump’s response has included not only deploying DC guardsmen, as the mayor requested, but also calling up guardsmen from other states, sending active-duty forces to sites outside the capital for possible operations and bringing in other federal law enforcement officials from agencies such as the Bureau of Prisons and Customs and Border Protection to patrol the streets.

Bowser has decried the fact that some of those federal agents have not been wearing identifying uniforms or badges.

The situation grew particularly tense after two helicopters from the DC Guard began hovering over protesters in the streets, blasting them with gusty rotor wash from the aircraft.

All helicopter flight operations in the DC Guard have been suspended until an investigation into the incident ordered by Esper is complete, said DC Guard spokeswoman Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Brooke Davis.

Trump’s insistence on a militarized response in the nation’s capital has led to strains with Esper, a West Point graduate and former Army officer who took over as defence secretary last year. Esper announced publicly mid-week that he wasn’t in favour of using the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops, even as the president threatened to invoke it.

Esper also said he was sending home some of the 1,600 active-duty troops amassed outside Washington but later stood down on that decision after a heated meeting with Trump.

On Friday (New Zealand time) the administration said some of those troops would indeed be leaving, and the next day McCarthy announced at the Pentagon that all active-duty soldiers would go home to their bases.

As of Saturday (New Zealand time), all had been ordered to return but not all had departed.

Trump has battled with Esper about the military this week, with the president seeing the strong uniformed force in Washington as a deterrent to unrest.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, has worried about the militarisation of a response that defence officials believe must be led by law enforcement.

A senior administration official with direct knowledge of Trump’s thinking said he has been frustrated with Esper this week and has at times considered replacing him, but has been warned against doing so. Trump and his aides were angry at what they viewed as a public repudiation of the president by Esper, who doesn’t have a close personal relationship with the president, and a reticence to take aggressive military steps that Trump believed were needed.

It wasn’t clear whether the Pentagon was responding to pressure from the D.C. municipal government in its decision to disarm the guardsmen and send active-duty troops home. Bowser has been calling publicly for the guardsmen to be disarmed but has also pushed for disarming them in private conversations with federal officials, according to an official familiar with the matter.

McCarthy said he had been “trying to communicate with the mayor,” who had expressed frustration about the size of the military response in DC and the little information she had received about it in advance. McCarthy said he has been communicating extensively with the metropolitan police chief, meeting five or six times per day on city street corners.

“We’re doing everything possible to tighten the coordination,” McCarthy said, acknowledging that effectively commanding the guardsmen and communicating has been “challenging.”

“This has been a very, very challenging time for us,” he said.

In a letter sent to Trump, Bowser informed the president that she had ended the city’s state of emergency and requested that he withdraw all extraordinary federal agents and military assets from the nation’s capital, explaining that the city was equipped to handle “large demonstrations and First Amendment activities.” She expressed particular concern about the federal agents not from the Department of Defence who had been brought into the city.

“I continue to be concerned that unidentified federal personnel patrolling the streets of Washington, D.C. pose both safety and national security risks,” the mayor wrote.

“The deployment of federal law enforcement personnel and equipment are inflaming demonstrators and adding to the grievances of those who, by and large, are peacefully protesting for change and for reforms to the racist and broken systems that are killing Black Americans.”


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